Lutèce, once regarded as America’s greatest French restaurant, is closing after 43 years.

The Manhattan establishment’s Valentine Day dinner on Saturday will be its last night.

Lutèce – on the East Side of Manhattan – bought a friendly ambience that contrasted with the intimidating French restaurants that long dominated the national dining scene.

Longtime chef-owner and co-founder André Soltner, favoring the white wines from his native Alsace, especially those from Zind-Humbrecht, was directly responsible for bringing the region to the attention of the American wine public.

Soltner introduced Zind-Humbrecht wines to disgraced president Richard M Nixon, who lived nearby in northern New Jersey after he left the White House and was a frequent customer at Lutèce. Nixon became addicted to them.

After Soltner sold Lutèce in 1994, he was succeeded in the kitchen by Eberhard Müller, who came from Le Bernardin, a fish house that is one of the few Manhattan restaurants awarded four stars by The New York Times.

The German-born, internationally known Müller rewrote much of the Lutèce wine list, emphasizing German rieslings, giving a boost to riesling just as interest in it as an alternative to chardonnay began rising across America.

Under Müller’s management, Lutèce became a minor center of German-wine tastings, and it was not uncommon to encounter great vintners like Carl-Ferdinand von Schubert of Maximin Grünhaus, in the Ruwer, and Fritz Hasselbach of Gunderloch, in the Rheinhessen, dining there.

In the 34 years under his management, Soltner was absent from the kitchen only five nights, he said. Both his stylish Old World cuisine, studded with European specialties like a famous onion tart, and his congenial manner – he visited every table nightly – created legions of loyal customers, American and foreign, celebrities and ordinary citizens, who vied for hard-to-get reservations.

The Times quoted Michael Weinstein, the president of Ark Restaurants, as saying that Lutèce suffered a damaging blow from the Sept. 11 terrorist attack and

never recovered from the loss of expense-account business.

Müller’s successor, the young David Féau, tried to update the classics, but his style never caught on with graying, monied customers who sentimentally wanted the vanishing world of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s to remain preserved in amber.

Written by Howard G Goldberg in New York